A Master of Djinn
by P. Djèlí Clark
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted April 20, 2021
Buy from Bookshop or Amazon. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.
P. Djèlí Clark returns to his alt-history, magic-infused Cairo of 1912 for his first novel, A Master of Djinn. It will be published in three weeks, May 11, but I was lucky in getting an e-ARC from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. Honestly, I loved it, which I was sure I would since it once again features Fatma el-Sha’arawi, one of the very few women agents of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities. Both Amazon and Goodreads say this is "Fatma el-Sha’arawi #1," implying there will be more stories in this sequence, but they're apparently the only two that say that. Neither Tor, Macmillan, Bookshop, or Barnes & Noble use that designation. Besides, #1 was actually the 2016 novelette, "A Dead Djinn in Cairo." I reviewed that two years ago along with the 2019 novella, The Haunting of Tram Car 015. Fatma was the lead character in the first story, whereas she only got a brief cameo appearance in the epilogue of the novella, its main characters being her fellow agents Hamed Nasr and Onsi Youssef, who get the cameo treatment in this novel. A new character is introduced, another woman agent, Hadia Hafez, who has been transferred from the Alexandria office to be Fatma's new partner, which irritates Fatma since she prefers to work alone. I like Fatma, both for her personality and her uncanny investigative abilities, but I was not pleased with the way she initially treated Hadia, who proved to be a most competent (and forgiving) partner.
I've fallen behind in reading, so I didn't re-read the previous stories as I had intended. I'm sure I remember the major plot points, but I don't recall how Fatma's friend Siti fit into the first investigation, and apparently she also gave Hamed and Onsi an assist in the second story. I will eventually read them again, and this novel too if time permits. Clark joins a growing list of writers I will follow through a hopefully long career. There are quite a few levels to this investigation, which begins with the mysterious deaths of Lord Alistair Worthington and more than twenty others, members of his Hermetic Brotherhood of Al-Jahiz, devoted to the study and accumulation of artifacts connected to the mystic who had opened the way to the Kaf, allowing entry to the world of the many various types of djinn and other supernatural creatures. The investigation intensifies when it becomes apparent there is someone who claims to be Al-Jahiz returned, but Fatma refuses to believe that, continually referring to them as the "imposter." It wouldn't have been out of the realm of possibility though, since many believed the Al-Jahiz of the 1850s was actually the 9th Century mystic who had time-traveled to the future. Even a few Ministry agents subscribe to that theory, whereas Fatma is sure Al-Jahiz was just a man with extraordinary insight, but that he had either died sometime in the 1870s, or else went into self-exile back to the Kaf through the portal he had created, then closed. But this person, imposter or not, exhibits considerable magical abilities.
Along with the multi-layered mystery, we get a closer look at the complexities of Cairo life, including djinn and other creatures working alongside humans. Many exhibit traits similar to humans, such as vanity and hubris, or they fall prey to vices like greed, or suffer from various addictions, including gambling. The majority of humans are either Muslim or Coptic Christians, but some have turned back to the ancient gods and goddesses, and that includes Siti. It's another one of the ways Fatma is not the most diplomatic of agents, with frequent disparaging remarks toward "idolators." Siti proves to be just as forgiving as Hadia, continually returning to Fatma with reassurances and compassionate reinforcement. A minor criticism would be I suspected the identity of the "imposter" fairly early, and I was right, but it didn't lessen my fascination with how all the other various elements were revealed along the way. I also felt the "angels" should have been dealt a more serious reprimand at the end, but other than those two things everything else was exciting and intriguing. There is lots of action, with several scenes that at first seem to be the climax, only for new threats and wonders to be revealed. I highly recommend this novel, although I think it best to read the previous stories to get the full picture of this fascinating world. I hope there are more stories in this sequence, novel or otherwise, but even if not, I'll follow Clark wherever he wants to take us.
We would appreciate your support for this site with your purchases from Amazon.com, Bookshop.org, and ReAnimusPress.